Bottom Line/Personal: What are the best luxury cars for 2015?

I’m Steven Kaye, Editorial Director at Bottom Line Publications, and today my guest is auto analyst Karl Brauer, Kelley Blue Book Senior Director. If you’re going for an all-out luxury car, you’re not interested in big compromises. Bottom Line will help you choose the best.

So Karl, all-out luxury sedans. You can spend a lot in this category, or you can spend less and still get a fine car.

Karl Brauer: Right.

Bottom Line: Where do you go?

Brauer: I think, like you said, no compromises. Just shoot to the top. Get yourself a really fabulous luxury car if that’s what you want.

There are plenty of fabulous luxury cars to choose from, but I think probably the most impressive one right now that just was redesigned is the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It’s impressive because it’s everything it’s always been in terms of this vault-like, solid structure that you get in and you feel like you can almost go through a war zone and be properly protected, because that’s what Mercedes always implies when you get inside. That’s just the feeling that these cars always give you.

But now, it’s this super advanced, technologically stunning bank vault, because it can drive itself, practically. There’s this autonomous technology trend that we’re watching approach rapidly, and every car company’s getting into it to some degree. But Mercedes is further along than anyone else.

The S-Class could pretty much drive itself; the only reason it doesn’t is because Mercedes won’t let it, in that if it senses your hand off the steering wheel for more than a certain amount of time, it starts making noise and yelling at you. But it will keep itself between the lanes, it will modulate its speed based on vehicles in front of it, it will stop automatically if something jumps in front of it.

It’s kind of amazing. There’s cars out there besides the S-Class that have this technology, but they have the most comprehensive and advanced versions so far.

Bottom Line: So has Mercedes worked out some of the kinks in terms of, for example, lane departure warnings? Some cars with that feature – which has only been around for a few years now, but some cars with that feature will warn you when you’re not departing your lane because it thinks you are. A lot of drivers end up turning those features off. But it sounds like maybe Mercedes has cracked the code on that kind of feature.

Brauer: They have, they really have. They’ve got enough advanced sensory input devices on the vehicle that it’s almost like a human in how well it sees and how well it knows what’s happening. There’s always going to be a challenge, and it’ll be interesting to see how every manufacturer solves this over time.

When you decide to change lanes and you don’t signal, which a lot of people don’t do, and maybe you don’t go super fast and clearly steer toward the lane; you’re just letting the car drift over because the road’s turning anyways – how many cars are going to know that you’re not drifting out of your lane, you’re intentionally changing lanes? That level of sophistication is probably still to come, and every car, including the S-Class, is going to have some false alarms in those kind of circumstances.

But it’s impressive to see how far they’ve brought this autonomous vehicle technology that is still probably 5 to 10 years away, but you can see that it could happen tomorrow if there was the attitude and the legal support to do it.

Bottom Line: You mean truly autonomous.

Brauer: Yeah. Because the technology is ready. It’s really a lot of legal issues and some infrastructure things, too. They want to start having sensors in the actual road and stop signs and stoplights so that they’re talking to the car.

But the S-Class is like a self-contained autonomous vehicle. It can essentially drive in the current environment that doesn’t have all these other extra systematic elements. It can drive in that environment by itself.

Bottom Line: It can park itself?

Brauer: Yeah, it’ll park itself. Of course, it has all sorts of crazy things too, like it’ll sense if you’re drowsy.

Bottom Line: Sense if you’re drowsy?

Brauer: Yeah, yeah, it’ll see what your eyes are doing. If your head’s bobbing, it’ll tell you to pull over because you’re tired, or get coffee.

And this is all on top of all the crazy things these cars already have, the backup cameras and the really advanced safety features, whether it’s the airbags going off or night vision. This car has got night vision so you can have another secondary screen in your display that shows you, if it sees infrared representing humans or animals wandering into your path when you’re driving through the forest and all that. It’s a real technological tour de force.

Bottom Line: How does it drive just as a car?

Brauer: It still drives really well too. The nice thing about Mercedes is they never tried to be the super sporty car. I always call them a bank vault. They feel like you’ve gotten in a bank vault. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most sporty feel, but it’s definitely the most secure feel that I think any car company implies when you’re going down the road.

Bottom Line: And what kind of pricing are we looking at for the 2015 S-Class?

Brauer: Yeah, you’re well past a hundred. You’re well into the 120s, 130s, even for a base model. And it goes up from there. So you’re going to spend a lot of money on a car like this, but that’s kind of the point of an ultra-luxury sedan.

Bottom Line: This is at or near the pinnacle of what you can obtain in a sedan right now. Of course, a Rolls-Royce and Bentley, you can spend more. Mercedes used to have a division, Maybach, where they were in that realm. They don’t make that anymore, as far as I know, right?

Brauer: Right.

Bottom Line: It seems like some of what they learned doing that, though, is drifting down – “down” being a relative term.

Brauer: Down to all the rabble in the $130,000, $150,000 range. All those people can now buy what used to be Maybach exclusive technology.

Bottom Line: Right, right. So the 2015 S-Class, that’s your first choice in the luxury sedan. Your next choice is a little bit different, but interesting in its own way.

Brauer: Yeah, this is a whole different take on it, which is the Lexus LS. Again, just like the Mercedes is this bank vault thing, the Lexus probably comes the closest to delivering that same feeling without being a Mercedes-Benz. And they have made – this LS has been the benchmark in terms of pure refinement.

Whereas the Mercedes feels maybe the most secure and solid, I think the Lexus feels just the most like you’re floating on a cloud when you go down the road. The engine NVH – noise, vibration, harshness is what that stands for – there is none. You don’t even really tell that the engine’s running. And the wind noise and the road noise, the tire noise.

They have isolated this car so well, I feel like you’re almost in one of these tanks that you go into, the isolation chambers and stuff, that you’re supposed to take out all exterior senses, is the joke I always say about Lexus vehicles. But that’s not necessarily an insult; that’s what people who buy luxury cars often want.

Bottom Line: Do you like that isolation feel personally?

Brauer: No, I’d personally rather have a little more sense of what’s going on around me. That’s why the Mercedes is probably a little more appealing to me. But I know what the luxury buyer out there, a lot of them, want. They want that sensory deprivation chamber. The LS is the best at it.

Bottom Line: They have music, and you have conversation, and you can get on with things and not worry about what the car is doing. Lexus has stepped up its styling a little bit, not without controversy.

Brauer: Yeah. Again, we’ve got the pinched grill or whatever you want to call it.

Bottom Line: But it’s not boring. Deserved or not, Lexus has had a reputation for boring styling for many years, even though they’ve been greatly respected.

Brauer: Yes.

Bottom Line: The styling is not boring anymore. I’ve seen this new styling on the road in several of their models, and I would have to say I think it’s growing on me.

Brauer: Okay.

Bottom Line: It does look a little snarly in the rearview mirror, which you’d never think of for a Lexus before.

Brauer: And that’s really their next frontier. You think about Lexus, what do they have to do? Do they have to convince people they’re high quality or high luxury, super refined vehicles that hold their value extremely well? No. That has been put to rest. Everyone knows that.

Do they have to convince people that they’re also somewhat interesting and engaging and fun to drive? Yes. That is still a goal they need to achieve. The person who’s running Lexus right now is a member of the Toyota family; he has stated very clearly that both brands, Toyota and Lexus, are going to show more passion. And that’s what we’re seeing here.

Bottom Line: And price range for this?

Brauer: You’re back heading toward $100,000. You can get one for under $100,000, but by the time you’ve put on a couple option packages that really make it feel high-tech, you’re going to go over $100,000.

Bottom Line: But you could get a Lexus LS for around $100,000, but not a Mercedes S-Class.

Brauer: No, you can’t get the S-Class till you step well beyond that.

Bottom Line: For someone who doesn’t want to spend more than a hundred or doesn’t want to spend much more than a hundred, this is a viable alternative. In every way a luxury car.

Brauer: Very luxurious.

Bottom Line: Karl, there’s one other car I wanted to ask you about in the luxury sedan segment, and that’s one that is getting a tremendous amount of attention and is selling well, and that’s the Tesla Model S.

Brauer: Well, that is a high-priced luxury vehicle that arguably competes with the other two vehicles we just discussed. It’s an interesting exercise in personal transportation that Elon Musk is taking us on. Certainly the car is causing a stir and it’s getting a lot of attention, and there are diehard fans who own the vehicle and swear by it, and swear they’ll never go back to internal combustion.

Interestingly, there’s been people who’ve done some long-term testing with that vehicle, too, and they’ve had various problems with it. One of the cars I heard about that had about 25,000 miles on it, had been put on over 18 months, had used – I believe, if I get this right – three battery packs and two power units, which is essentially the motor. Or maybe it was the vice versa. But both those components had been replaced more than once during that 18 months.

Now, Tesla brought a transporter and they fixed them in record time and got the vehicle back, so they did everything that you would hope a luxury premium brand would do for you when you’ve lost a major component like that. But it’s hard for me to recommend a car when I know major components are failing in the first 18 months.

Bottom Line: So that would be roughly like having a new Mercedes and having to replace the engine.

Brauer: Yeah, and the transmission multiple times.

Bottom Line: For those who are fans of the Tesla – full electric, very quick, looks beautiful, four doors, and good service – they may be willing to be the early adopter guinea pigs, if you will, and put up with it. But from your standpoint, it sounds like you think there’s some teething problems.

Brauer: There’s still some work to be done there. Now, I would fully acknowledge that both cars I knew of were purchased early in their production. They were some of the first available, and you know Tesla is learning as it goes. It’s in the steep part of its learning curve as a volume automaker, so it’s getting better. Every car that rolls off the assembly line is probably a step up from the previous one that just rolled off.

So if you went and bought a brand new Tesla today, would it have those same problems over the first 18 months and 25,000 miles? I highly doubt it. But it wasn’t like one thing went wrong once; multiple major components went wrong multiple times.

So I would need to see another one tested, maybe a current one tested for another year-plus and have zero issues, or almost zero issues, before I’d be able to feel like I can recommend it.

Bottom Line: Those troubles might be behind Tesla; we just don’t know it yet.

Brauer: I don’t know.

Bottom Line: We have to let some time go by.

Brauer: I think they are. It would make sense that they are. I need some validation before I’m ready to recommend.

Bottom Line: Okay, thanks very much, Karl.

Brauer: Absolutely.